‘We are part of a vast river of images’

Author Vikram Chandra wrote a magnum opus on Mumbai’s underbelly. He interprets his city in the wake of the 26/11 attack

December 20, 2008 in Culture
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In crowd Vikram Chandra walks the streets of Mumbai

In crowd Vikram Chandra walks the streets of Mumbai Courtesy: Vikram Chandra/Hindustan Times

What is it about the coverage of and reaction of the elite to 26/11 that disturbed you? And what aspects did you find positive? Your book took you into the city’s underbelly. Do you have any pulse of it now? Are there theories doing the rounds about the attacks?
Well, there are lots of rumours about Dawood Ibrahim’s involvement in setting up the logistics at the Mumbai end of the operation; the notion is that his organisation’s knowledge of smuggling routes and security routines in these waters would have been used in the maritime leg, and that there was an arms and material resupply in the city after the terrorists landed. I hasten to emphasise that these are rumours, and nobody’s cited any evidence for any of this yet.

What’s struck me in talking to people from all levels and professions is that often this latest action is construed as a simple Pakistan versus India strike; there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of the complexity of the politics and power dynamics within Pakistan itself — the fact that large swathes of the Afghanistan border are more or less run by the Taliban and other groups; that some of these groups are openly dedicated to the downfall of the Pakistani state; that the Pakistani army has lost many soldiers in clashes along that border and has been forced to make monetary deals with some of the mujahideen commanders; that the Americans are daily expending very large amounts of firepower along the border, and are sometimes firing across it; that if elements of the Pakistani security apparatus have been involved with this last attack, they may have acted outside of the official loop, if only to maintain plausible deniability. So, in terms of its strategic intent, where this attack fits into this larger jigsaw is mostly left out of the discussion altogether.

This is true not only in the local chaishop, but also in the media — a much more simple narrative is constructed, making it easier for the “Let’s start the carpet bombing” crowd to call for attacks on training camps and so forth. The trouble is that the planners of these atrocities might want you to do exactly that, and may profit hugely if you do.

Changing our polity is a long-term project. But joining the neighbourhood association you can do today

Conversations with people who think of themselves as generally progressive, of course, comes around to Kashmir, and the ongoing bloodshed there. Recommendations range from “Let’s solve the Kashmir problem in cooperation with Pakistan” to “We should unilaterally pull our forces out of Kashmir.” Again, I think, there’s a bit of putting on of blinders to the complexity of the game, to the number of actors and their varying agendas.

Of course we should find some resolution to this mutual bloodletting that has plagued us since Partition, but I don’t think anyone should imagine that finding a solution in Kashmir is going to end the fighting elsewhere. The current conflict is not just about territory, it’s an ideological battle. The ideological stance of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the other groups seems to be often minimised into a simple reaction to poverty and technological backwardness, and there’s a notion that development and a certain kind of education will easily dissolve it. The rise of the Hindu right in India should have taught us better: those who search for purity come from all classes, and are very willing to embrace certain aspects of modernity and technology.

Flaming passions Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel in flames

Flaming passions Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel in flames Photo: Shailednra Pandey

Has the underworld changed? Is it less about plain business now; has it become a communal force?
My impression is that, as always, profit is the primary incentive for the underworld. At times like these, religious sentiments may flare up momentarily, but finally business overrules all other considerations. The edges between the underworld and the arena of politics is always blurry, of course, even when ideologically pure movements are concerned.

The Taliban, for instance, get huge infusions into their war chest from the taxes they impose on the growing of poppy and the movements of its afterproducts. A lot of that product finds its way over Indian borders and then to the West. Cash moves in a reverse flow.

Terror attacks, Shiv Sena politics, the MNS campaign, overcrowding, the failing civic structures. What has all this done to Mumbai’s psyche? Is it now riven by deeper faultlines than existed before?
It’s hard to answer this question without writing a 900-page novel. In reference to recent events, though, I’ve noticed in the last few days an inclination to act locally, to be responsible for what’s going on in your own neighbourhood. After all the rallies and the placards, the therapeutic slogan-shouting, I think finally people are left with the question — what are you going to do? Changing the nature of our polity, most people realise very quickly, is a long-term project, and a very large one. But joining your neighbourhood association and being active in it is something you can do today.

Considering the size of the problems we face, this might seem trivial. But getting away from our traditional and famous civic irresponsibility, our attitude of chalta hai and let’s-blame-everyoneelse, is a crucially important baby-step toward that grand remaking of the country that everyone wants.

There is a sense that we are living in a “very dangerous moment” in the life of the country. Do you have the same sense?
There’s certainly an end-times feeling in the air. During the recent attacks, I spoke to a friend who normally would be the last person to use this kind of language, but he said that “It really feels like Kaliyug today.” I think that people are weary, and there is a sense that with this latest escalation we are entering some kind of endgame.

Confusing and stressful times produce these millennial emotions, and I’m willing to bet we’ll get some theworld- is-ending movements and predictions in the coming months. Fear is very potent political ammunition, and I’m sure some people will exploit it. But I hope we don’t produce our own version of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay. We already have too much potential for abuse within the system, and we certainly don’t need more.

As our realities have become more complex, our films less and less so. Of course, there are new creative energies in Bollywood, but in making completely depoliticised personal stories, NRI films, little genre films — has it failed us?
I feel honour-bound to point out that popular culture, as usual, has anticipated reality and has scooped more highminded ‘Art’. This was brought home to me very strongly after the operations at the Taj hotel were concluded, and a newspaper quoted one of the NSG commandoes as saying about the events inside, “It was just like the climax of Bichchoo.”

Films from Mumbai and elsewhere have been dealing with terrorism for decades now. This fictional pre-figuring of what actually happens later isn’t limited to India; Americans often point to Tom Clancy’s depiction of the use of airliners as weapons in a novel published in the 1980s. Robert Heinlein published a story called “Solution Unsatisfactory” in 1940, which predicted the setting up of the Manhattan Project and the use of nuclear weapons against Germany. A lesser known writer named Cleve Cartmill published a story called “Deadline” in 1944, which featured a chain-reaction-powered nuclear bomb, and earned himself a visit from the FBI, who were afraid that there might be a leak within the Manhattan Project.

I heard people say ‘It’s just like some movie,’ in disbelief. Unfortunately, life can be very filmi at times

So, it seems, we use these stories, in various media, to imagine and confront our future nightmares. We discount these nightmares precisely because they are fictional, and because they often emerge from the popular imagination, from what is considered the low end of cultural production. And yet, when the nightmare starts to happen in real life, we can’t help but use these narratives to parse what is actually happening to us. Several times during the recent Mumbai attacks, I heard people say things like, “It’s just like some movie,” in a tone of disbelief.

In Sacred Games, when the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde starts to be terrified of the possibility of a huge terrorist action in Mumbai, a friend of his tells him, “This happens only in films. It’s too filmi. If it happens in a film, it won’t happen in life.” I was really preoccupied while writing that book with this irony, this hautebourgeois belief that Hindi movies, especially, are false because they are too big, too dramatic. But life, unfortunately, can be very filmi at times.

As a writer, what are the big themes or little details that preoccupy you about our contemporary life? What do you grapple most with in your imagination?
What struck me strongly over the last couple of weeks is how saturated our lives have become with media. I don’t mean just our obsession with the cinema, or television coming into our drawing rooms, but that our bodies are covered with devices that communicate, show, talk, text. All those people in mortal danger using their cell phones to call loved ones, phones ringing and vibrating on bodies that were already dead. The CCTV cameras catching moments of horror, the face of that terrorist frozen forever in that bright-eyed snarl of combat and plain murder. The propaganda of the deed flows through us and into us. We are, more than ever, part of this vast river of images and narrative. Finally, we can resist only through narrative.

Someone asked me about the presence of a film director at the Taj shortly after the firefight ended, what I thought of this. I understand that his presence at the site was deeply offensive to many people, because it suggests that all that suffering can be instantly made into entertainment. But, finally, what else can we do with the sorrow and the horror of the world but make stories of it?

We feel offended right now because the events are too immediate, the pain too raw. Yet, at some point, we will tell stories about this, as we have told stories about the 2006 train bombings, about 9/11, about Partition, about the Holocaust. The people who attacked us have their own narrative, a story about what virtue is, about what is valuable in life, about where and what Heaven is.

In enacting this violence, they are trying to superimpose their narrative on ours, to make all other stories vanish. We cannot be silent.

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